Amity Affection

Published in Billboard Magazine

An Australian top 10 album for Brisbane hardcore act the Amity Affliction surprised many Down Under—not least the band and its management.

The sextet’s sophomore set, “Youngbloods” (Boomtown/ Shock), opened at No. 6 on the Australian Recording Industry Assn. albums chart published June 28, easily eclipsing the No. 26 peak of “Severed Ties” in 2008. “Our target was top 20, so it came as a big surprise to us,” says manager Luke Logemann of Melbourne-based Staple Music Management.

The album was recorded in New Jersey with producer Machine (Every Time I Die, Lamb of God, Gym Class Heroes). International releases aren’t yet confirmed, but Logemann says that “we’re talking to a lot of labels [and] we’ll be spending a lot of time overseas next year.”

The Amity Affliction has steadily built its domestic fan base through extensive touring in the past six years (it wraps a national tour July 25), while media support has come from national youth-oriented radio network Triple J and alternative culture magazine Blunt. Readers of Blunt voted the act band of the year in 2009.

A U.K. tour is planned for December, with U.S. and European concerts expected to begin in February 2011. Australian shows are booked by Destroy All Lines; the Agency Group books for Europe and Asia. Worldwide publishing is through Native Tongue/Boomtown Publishing.

Splendour in the Grass: Celebrating a Splendid Ten Years

Published in The Music Network

 

As its title would suggest, Splendour in the Grass has grown organically. This year, the festival celebrates its 10th anniversary with a killer line-up, a new location and a swift sell-out.

The Pixies, The Strokes and Scissor Sisters are booked to appear on its biggest-ever bill, featuring more than 150 acts spread across July 30 to August 1. Splendour is the hottest ticket this winter. But the grass hasn’t always been so green. Early losses, inclement weather and 11th-hour cancellations have kept co-organisers Paul Piticco and Jessica Ducrou on their toes, as TMN discovered.

Splendour had an inauspicious beginning. In year one, the festival sold out but still managed to lose money. “It wasn’t very much – maybe $20,000 – but we were struggling,” recalls Piticco. “We’re never geared to be highly profitable, but costs were blowing. There were a few sideways looks from agents when we told them.”

There were also some strange glances from the talent. Certainly from Piticco’s wards Powderfinger, who on the 2001 debut of Splendour took centre stage, a position they would lock-down on a number of occasions through the years.

In an effort to trim costs, the Splendour crew removed the flooring from the band’s tent. Then the rain came. It started as a trickle, then moved as a current. All of it passing through the middle of the bandroom for Australia’s biggest rock group.

“Splendour started with very meagre beginnings,” muses Piticco. Those rookie mistakes provided Piticco and Ducrou a cold, hard lesson in how to run a big show. In the decade that has passed, Splendour has grown fourfold. Splendour began as a one-day treat, with. 7,500 punters walking through the turnstiles, many of whom pitched a tent for the night.

This year, 32,000 festival goers will descend on what is a new site for Splendour. The hardiest ticketholders will pitch their tents for the full four-night stay.

Powderfinger guitarist Ian Haug hasn’t missed an edition of Splendour, and he’ll be there again this year as a punter. “There’s an inexplainable vibe playing Splendour,” he tells TMN. “All the bands hang out together and it’s really relaxed. It just feels more personal. And it doesn’t have the production line feel other big Australian fests have.”

Spendour was always envisaged as a camping festival in Byron Bay. Indeed, it was in the northern New South Wales beach community where Piticco and Ducrou first met, some 20 years ago. Ducrou, then an account executive with Rolling Stone Magazine, happened upon Piticco during an early incarnation of the Blues Festival. The pair hit it off immediately. Ducrou would learn the ropes in the live scene, first managing a venue, then working as an agent with APA Agency. Soon after, she became Powerfinger’s agent.

In 1996, she teamed with International Music Concepts’ Joe Segreto to launch the Homebake festival, which moved south to Sydney in 1998. That year, Ducrou established the Village Sounds agency.

Piticco, meanwhile, was creating his own empire in Brisbane. These days, his day job includes steering the Brisbane-based Secret Service artist management firm and the Dew Process label. After all these years, the pair know each other’s moves pretty well. Ducrou brings to the table her expertise in orchestrating live events, Piticco the intangibles. The pair draw up their musical wishlist more than a year before each festival.

“Do we have disagreements? Every ten minutes,” laughs Piticco. “Half the time you’re wrong, half the time you’re right. You’ve just got to identify when it’s you that’s wrong and know when to hold firm if you feel you’re right.”

This year marks a radical transition for Splendour, which has moved away from its Byron Bay heritage for the first time. Having long since outgrown its traditional home in Belongil Fields, Splendour’s organizers set their sights on a permanent home in the nearby Yelgun area. It wasn’t to be. After years of wrangling with councillors, organizers were unable to secure the requisite council approval.

A move north to the site of the annual Woodford Folk Festival in rural Queensland was decided, after striking a two-year contract with the Queensland Government and the Moreton Bay Regional Council. For now, Splendour will call Woodfordia home. Queensland’s Premier Anna Bligh was quick to declare the arrival of Splendour as a “huge coup” for her state, one her advisers claimed could generate upwards of $13 million for the local region.

“It’s a far superior site to the one we were at. But it’s not a ten minute walk to the beach,” admits Piticco. Splendour’s position in the middle of Australia’s winter sets it apart from its rivals. The giant Big Day Out national tour in January and February has its own gravitational pull, dragging its artists to the sunnier climate when the northern hemisphere’s outdoor music circuit has shut down for the winter. Splendour has little competition down under. Rather, it faces-off with the crowded northern festivals market. When its organizers initially drew up their battleplan, they factored in the action going on nearby.

By piggybacking onto the Japanese Fuji Rock and Super Sonic festivals, and creating opportunities for separate sideshows in Australia’s main markets of Sydney and Melbourne, Splendour adds an Australian link to a new mini- Pacific Rim circuit for the performers. When it comes to selecting Splendour’s historical high points, Piticco and Ducrou are in step. Coldplay’s 2003 headline set sticks in the mind, as does last year’s Flaming Lips dazzler.

And the low points? During the 2003 event, the heavens memorably opened over Splendour’s campsite. “Oh, it was pretty terrible,” explains Ducrou. “The rain was relentless, torrential on the Friday. The rain returned the following day. By the time Sunday came around, the site was a mudfest. The team has also battled scalpers and dealt with last-minute cancellations, including the loss of 2009’s headliner Jane’s Addiction when the band’s drummer Stephen Perkins went down with a “mysterious infection” to his elbow. The Living End slotted in. Just 200 tickets were returned for re-sale.

Ticket-touts regularly threatened to rain on Splendour’s parade. Weary of seeing tickets appearing on eBay at twice the face value, organizers broke ranks in 2006 and trialled a new ticketing “tout-proof” system, which required an ID counterpart. It’s a necessary evil, one that has all but stopped Splendour tickets from surfacing on eBay.

“The Government should pass some legislation that stops the re-sale of a ticket for more than face value,” Ducrou says. “If they did that, we wouldn’t need this complex process for people to buy tickets.” On a show day, Splendour’s site will count roughly 2,000 crew and artists. Ten years earlier, that figure was less than 400. Clearly Splendour isn’t turning back. Piticco and Ducrou are already planning next year’s event, which both concede will likely stay in Woodford.

There’s still a desire to bring Splendour home to Byron Bay, with news on which is expected later in the year. And is there room for growth?

“It won’t be any longer. The three day format matches other events around the world, like Glastonbury, Coachella, Reading,” notes Ducrou. “Splendour is long enough.”


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The Hot Seat: Terry Smart

Published in The Music Network

 

We speak to JB Hi-Fi CEO Terry Smart about the future of the retail chain, diversifying and why they’re focusing on retail in a digital age.

Terry, it’s only been a few weeks since you took the reins from Richard Uechtritz. How do you intend to drive the company forward?
I’m obviously a different person to Richard, but it’s still very much business as usual. We know what needs to be done and it’s now all about how we execute. We’ve always had a very collaborative approach to managing the business. We all have input, which ensures we’re all heading in the same direction.

Where does music fit in the context of the whole business: is it a loss leader or a key profit driver?
Music is part of JB’s heritage and it helps to complete the total entertainment piece. We don’t use music as a loss leader. It’s an important part of the overall business and it contributes its share to the overall profit.

Is music a strong seller for JB?
Music sales continue to perform well, even though the physical side lags behind the rest of the business in comparative store growth. Our online presence continues to grow year-on-year.

HMV in the UK has diversified with a handful of non-traditional retail purchases, including a buyin with a live venue operator and a cinema partnership. Do you see JB following any of these routes?
Absolutely not. We run a very different retail model to HMV; we carry a broader range of entertainment products and music is just one of them. We’ve always focused on what we know we do well – running a retail business – and we never want to distract ourselves from it.

Clive Peeters crashed. Is the physical retail landscape particularly volatile at the moment?
Yes, and you can expect further consolidation as the tougher trading conditions continue to bite and put further pressure on the smaller retailers.

Do you have expansion plans outside Australia and New Zealand?
No, not at this stage because we have so much opportunity here in Australia and NZ. Our plan is to have 210 JB branded stores. Given we currently have 130 JB Hi-Fi stores, we have plenty of work ahead of us. MORE ONLINE themusicnetwork.com/features US retailer Best Buy recently set up in the UK.

Can the Australian market take another big music retail chain?
It’ll be difficult for another big box retailer to open here due to the difficulties in finding the size of the retail space they require. Especially for a large format retailer like Best Buy. But it’s obviously possible.

Should labels be more aggressive about lowering prices on physical product?
We are beginning to see the music companies drop their backcatalogue pricing but it’s definitely not as much as we would like. However we are getting more temporary campaigns where we can price aggressively and move large quantities of stock. These campaigns prove if we can get to an everyday low-price offer, then volumes with Terry Smart should pick up. Chart is the other area where we need to see pricing come down so we can build our volumes.

Entertainment retailers around the world have been taking a beating for some time. What is it about JB’s formula?
The in-store experience. That’s what is critical to ensure customers continue to come back. It’s all about the in-store mood, the merchandising and, importantly, our keen, knowledgeable and engaging staff.

Does JB have plans to get serious in the digital downloading space?
We will, as we see it as an opportunity. We’ll continue to research to find the best way forward. Our strong brand will translate well into the online space but we need to ensure we do it right.

 

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Bliss N Eso: Standing Tall

Published in The Music Network

 

Last year, the Sydney trio nailed the most extensive trek of the US by an Australian hip hop act. With their new album Running On Air ready for the racks, Bliss N Eso are sowing the seeds to do the unthinkable – having a pop at the home of hip hop.

One half of the duo, Jonathan ‘Bliss’ Notley has a foot in each camp. Born in the US, MC Bliss migrated to Australia as a high-school aged lad. It took a year to fit in, to acclimatise to the sports, the landscape, the way Australians interact. The hip hop community wasn’t even a blip on Australia’s cultural radar, let alone the international market. Not any longer.illu

“A new day is coming,” Bliss tells TMN. “Hip hop in America is saturated at the moment with the whole ‘bling bling’ culture and ‘gangsterism’. Australian hip hop has its own sound.” And audiences abroad, it seems, are becoming receptive to it. “We’re bringing political issues, environmental issues into the music, and the crowds find it refreshing. We heard that constantly around every show in the States.”

Home-grown hip hop has never been bigger down under. The APRA and ARIA Awards recognize hip hop in the ‘urban’ category, and the genre’s presence is felt in the album sales charts. “The quality of hip hop is getting better, and the movement is getting more exposure. That’s due to the artists’ hard work and the support Triple J has given the movement,” notes Hau Latukefu, presenter of Triple J’s hip hop show. Adelaide crew Hilltop Hoods smashed it with their fifth studio album State of the Art (Golden Era/UMA) album, which spent two weeks at No. 1 last year and was the year’s best-selling album by an Australian artist, according to ARIA data.

“Ten years ago, if you said an Australian hip hop record or band could be big here, people would have laughed,” says Adam Jankie, co-founder and Operations Manager at Melbourne-based Illusive Entertainment Group, which handles the Bliss N Eso’s releases, management, bookings and merchandise. “Five years ago, it was just starting to come through. But it was a small artform, and the acts were never expected to reach the top of the charts. That’s been disproven. Over the next three to five years we’ll start to see these acts start to break through into the international territories.”

In the live arena, Australian hip hop “has never been healthier,” explains Hilltop Hoods manager Dylan Liddy, whose wards last year played 4,000 capacity venues in the major Australian cities, and filled 1,000-2,000 capacity sites in the secondary and regional territories. “There’s clearly a strong demand even in some of the most isolated regions and the festivals are helping break domestic hip hop into the mainstream.”

For the past decade, Bliss, and his bandmates MC Esoterik (aka Max MacKinnon) and DJ Izm (aka Tarik Ejjamai) have made a habit of getting close to their fans. Wind the clock back, and the hip hoppers would fling around their cassettes and party with the fans. Cassettes are now a thing of the past, and the group’s partying days are largely behind them.

But they’re finding new avenues to connect with their tribe. The self-confessed gaming addicts enjoyed a breakthrough of sorts when their song Field of Dreams was synced to Electronic Arts’ Fight Night Round 4 game last year, where it featured alongside works by Snoop Dogg, Bloc Party and Mos Def.

The blogosphere has also played in their favour, evidence for which was waiting Stateside. While on a 15-city run of North America last year with Canada’s Swollen Members, some fans brandished the ultimate in merch – Bliss N Eso tattoos. “We were blown away, because we’d never released anything in the States,” explains Bliss. “It just shows you the power of social networking and viral marketing through the Web and the power of our music spreading digitally.”

Crafted in the Victorian bush, new album Running On Air keeps the flavour of Bliss N Eso’s ARIA Award-winning predecessor Flying Colours, while enlisting the help of some heavyweight friends. Rapper and MTV favourite Xzibit cut the album track People Up On It, Wu Tan Clan co-founder RZA appears on Smoke Like a Fire while Jehst, a UK underground hip hop member of royalty, appears on the track I Can.

Opening with the cinematic and moody title track, the album quickly slips into party mode before settling into a broody, darker hue. Lead single Down by the River is making waves into commercial radio. “It’s a solid tune, easy on the ears, it has a catchy chorus and the drums are banging,” notes Triple J’s Latukefu, who has championed the track.

There’s an unusually broad palate of samples on display, dug out from producer MPhazes’ imperious vinyl collection. The upbeat Flying Through The City bears a sample from Alright in the City, released in 1971 by New Zealand funk-rock outfit The Quincy Conserve, while on closing number Late One Night, the trio mixes it up with a cut from Kasey Chambers and Shane Nicholson’s glorious country hit Rattlin’ Bones. Art House Audio carries a piano riff lifted from cheery ‘80s TV talent scout Johnny Young.

Due July 30, the album’s 19 tracks “complement people’s different moods throughout the day,” explains Bliss. With its catchy, righteous chorus, the second single Addicted has radio written all over it. And there’s plenty of colloquial references. On Flying, Eso boasts a hunger like Nudge from Hey Dad and in Family Affair he dons his “wife beater”. American fans of the record will surely give Google a good beating.

Bliss N Eso’s career can be traced back to those days when talk of an Aussie hip hop breakthrough was accompanied with giggles. Illusion, helmed by managing director Matt Gudinski (son of Mushroom Group chairman Michael Gudinski) and Jankie, initially booked the band as the local support on a Cypress Hill tour the company was arranging. Bliss N Eso’s debut Flowers In The Pavement had been an underground hit for Obese Records in 2004, selling about 7,500 copies. Bliss N Eso jumped label and released followup Day of the Dog in 2006 through Illusive Sounds. It shifted about 27,000 copies and is nearing the gold threshold (35,000 units). In keeping with the trio’s trend for incremental album sales, Flying Colours from 2008 is on the verge of platinum status (70,000 units) having shifted 67,000 units.

In support of Running On Air, the group will tour Australia this August. Illusive is laying the groundwork for another visit to the US later this year, most likely in September and October, after which time a comprehensive Australian trek will roll out, including a confirmed appearance at Canberra’s Stonefest. The team at the music company are negotiating international partners to release the album.

America isn’t the only big target for Australia’s hip hop ranks. The Hoods are currently on an extensive UK and European jaunt through July, taking in shows at Scotland’s T In The Park festival and Ireland’s Oxegen fest. “Australian Artists like the Hilltop Hoods and Bliss N Eso are opening doors for other hiphop acts, and for the whole scene in general,” says Jankie.

“The Hoods are working their arse off to get that market building in Europe,” Gudinski adds. “And we’re taking Bliss N Eso to the territories where only pop, rock and electro Australian acts have made it. Those bands are paving the way for Aussie hip hop to have a crack over there.”

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